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Googling your guests: Accommodating or creepy?

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Question:

I read an article that said with guest notes, the days of low-key anonymous dining are over. We Google most of our guests if they have a reservation (and, if we can find out who they are, sometimes even if they don’t). What is appropriate protocol for servers and managers who have done their research? Better to be upfront or not? Where is the line between good service and creepy?

 

– Server, Philadelphia

Answer:

It used to be that for a restaurant to know guest preferences, guests needed to be regulars, or perhaps VIPs whose reputations preceded them. To be sure, good restaurant managers, especially in fine dining, have always kept notes on select guests and could wow a regular by having a favorite cocktail delivered to the table upon seating, remembering to mention dietary accommodations when reciting specials, or being sure to set aside a favorite vintage when reaching the end of the bin.

Technology has changed the scene. Managers can now conduct instantaneous research before a guest arrives, or even after their arrival, via the web, and multiple employees from multiple operations can share and update guest notes across a company. This creates an opportunity both to provide extraordinary hospitality (“I happened to notice you dined with us last year at this time—is this a special occasion?”) and upsell (“We have a new and rare dessert wine that would be a great pairing with your tart.”).

That knowledge, however, also comes with the ability to make the guest uncomfortable if not used correctly (“I was just looking at your vacation photos from Cancun—looks like you had a great time. Can I recommend a mescal?”).

Ben Fileccia, restaurant partnerships manager, mid-Atlantic for Reserve and longtime front-of-house professional, advises, “I don't think it [needs to be] obvious that you have done research on the guests. Whereas doing something special for birthdays and anniversaries will be very obvious to a guest that has not shared that information, other forms of catering to individual diners are not quite as apparent. For example, I am going to search for the guest [on] all social media channels. On their Facebook page, I am going to normally find out their birth date and anniversary, if applicable. But I also may see some pictures from trips from their vacations. If I notice that they have recently visited Spain, or South America, or the Willamette Valley … when I am talking to them about wine, I am going to suggest a bottle from a destination that they have recently been to. I am not going to say that I saw that they had visited this location on their Instagram page, but I know that their eyes will definitely light up when I bring up that region they visited. Hopefully that will spark a conversation, increase their enjoyment (and my check average) as well as create a memorable moment that they will leave with and cherish.”

Too much service customization, however, may let the guest know you’ve been researching them. Rather than shying away from having looked into them, Fileccia advises owning up to it. “When guests ask me how I know their birthday or other information upon their first visit, I have zero qualms about telling them that we do our research in order to provide the best hospitality we can possibly offer. … Guests are always surprised, and then quite pleased to know that our hospitality does not end when they leave the restaurant. The fact of the matter is, everyone feels better when you are treated like a well-loved regular, and I feel that it is our job to make sure every guest feels that way.”

My advice is to include protecting guest privacy as well as using guest notes to improve hospitality and increase sales in your training programs. Make it a practice during preservice meetings to discuss strategies that might be successful with a particular guest. More on effective use of guest notes here.

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